Asking for help in Iraq

A conference in Brussels encourages aid to Iraq. Although many nations attended, no one's pledging money yet.

By Page Rockwell
Published June 22, 2005 8:11PM (EDT)

Today's mega-conference in Brussels on Iraq -- cosponsored by the U.S. and the E.U. and attended by representatives from 74 nations -- was designed to encourage broader participation in the country's reconstruction. The L.A. Times called the meeting "a matchmaking exercise: a chance for the Iraqis to present their political, economic and security agendas and for the participating nations to decide how they might be in a position to help." But so far, that help seems to be mostly symbolic. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the conference's purpose was "primarily political ... to send a clear message that the international community will stand by the people of Iraq." No major initiatives were announced, and whether any tangible aid will be offered remains to be seen. In fact, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had to remind nations that have already pledged contributions to Iraq that they need to pony up -- very little of the $15 billion in non-U.S. aid pledged at a conference two years ago has actually been contributed.

The conference did offer some hopeful indications. Saudi Arabia, which is Iraq's largest creditor, said it was "ready to ease" the country's debt burdens and pledged to "provide generous terms" for repayment. And Egypt announced its plan to be the first Arab state to send an ambassador to Iraq since Saddam Hussein was ousted.

Of course, the Bush administration stands to benefit by making Iraq's reconstruction the world's problem. With the Pentagon missing its recruitment goals and public support for the war plummeting, infusions of foreign cash, consultants, supplies and troops -- and the option of having some other countries to blame stuff on -- could be just the life preserver the war effort needs. But, as Guardian business editor Mark Tran pointed out in the Guardian news blog, investors and nations are understandably wary of getting involved with a country facing severe security concerns, an estimated $100 billion in debt, a ravaged infrastructure and a workforce weakened by years of sanctions. According to Tran, "Iraq needs an economic miracle ... Given the turmoil, it is amazing the country is growing at all."

If potential investors and donor nations are cautious, it's with good reason, given how much money has already gone unaccounted for in Iraq. Yesterday's report from Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., on the U.S. sending $12 billion in cash to Iraq between March 2003 and June 2004 -- including $2.4 billion that was rushed to the country in duffle bags in preparation for the transfer of power to the interim Iraqi government -- caused understandable concern about where aid money has been going. (It doesn't help that the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq ended up misplacing about $9 billion of seized Iraqi oil revenues.)

And, unfortunately, the picture hasn't improved much under the interim government or the Iraqi parliament. Deputy Speaker Hussain al-Shahristani acknowledged the country's ongoing corruption problems to reporters on Tuesday: "Iraqi procurement rules are good, but they have been abused or disobeyed. All sorts of excuses were made up for shady deals with cash and carrying millions of dollars in briefcases across borders." And, he added, high-level corruption is especially prevalent: "A number of inspector generals whose job is to guard public money in ministries even took part in the corruption circle," al-Shahristani said. He also acknowledged that, conference or no conference, the country is unlikely to get more international aid until the problems improve: "We have heard from donor countries that they have been reluctant to send us money because of corruption. The situation has reached disastrous proportions and we are doing something about it."

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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